By Andrea Morley, Communications & Wellness Coordinator, NAL Insurance, Inc.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a variety of challenges for individuals in all industries and regions and professional drivers are no exception.
An already-isolated population, drivers were further limited to how they could interact with others, which placed an additional strain on their emotional health. Suddenly stripped of their ability to just have a meal with another driver in a truck stop, drivers spent even more time on their own.
Washroom, restaurant, and truck stop access quickly became limited, which made necessary activities that revolved around meals and hygiene very difficult. Healthy food, which is already difficult to obtain on the road, became even more difficult to come by as truck stops limited their offerings.
Many drivers opted to sleep in their trucks, even when at home, to distance themselves from family and reduce the risk of transmission.
While restrictions have a purpose to reduce case numbers, the level of testing and isolation that was asked created a stigma towards drivers. As a result of the pandemic, restrictions, and deep divide in opinions throughout 2020, mental health in drivers (and the general population) began to plummet.
As essential workers, professional drivers didn’t have the option of working from home; meanwhile, we became increasingly reliant on them as grocery store shelves quickly became bare and other essentials and medical supplies were in high demand.
While the virus outcomes were widely unknown, we learned that individuals with certain comorbidities – including obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes – were faring worse, often requiring medical intervention, potential ICU stays, and at a higher risk of death. Studies show that the prevalence of these health issues is up to twice as high in truck drivers as they are in the general population, meaning drivers were at a higher risk of a worse outcome with COVID-19.
Did this heightened risk push some drivers to improve their health to reduce their risk of serious illness? While some drivers did see their health improve through 2020, others suffered due to the increased stressors, lack of healthy food, no access to gyms, and overall change of routine and lifestyle.
Let’s consider what’s been asked of professional drivers throughout the pandemic: they are to go into virus hot spots throughout Canada, the United States and in large cities, and rely on public spaces for food and washrooms (when they can find them, of course).
With all these increased risks, were they the “super spreaders” they were often accused of being? While there isn’t a lot of data on this subject, some groups have connected the dots between case numbers and occupation.
COVID-19 Cases Among
Commercial Truck Drivers “Thirty-five carriers from all regions in Canada, representing a combined 12,000 cross-border drivers, reported that only 60 drivers contracted COVID-19 (0.5%) since March 2020 – the majority of which contracted the virus through community spread and not related to their occupation.” – Canadian Trucking Alliance: Stop Singling Out Truck Drivers as COVID Source, April 2021
Peel Region Cases
For the first year of the pandemic, the Peel region in Ontario saw roughly
40,000 cases, with 10% of them being individuals in the trades, transportation, and equipment operators industries. While 10% may seem significant enough, it’s important to remember that only a percentage of those were actually transportation, and an even smaller percentage were in the role of a truck driver. Further, out of the percentage that were actually truck drivers, an even smaller proportion would have been from job-related transmission.
Cases by Occupation: Washington
In November 2020, the State of Washington shared a report of cases per number of people employed in each industry. It was found that 0.4% of individuals employed in transportation and material moving had tested positive for the virus.
While case numbers by occupation and industry are difficult to track, these statistics indicate that drivers likely did a relatively good job at reducing the spread of the virus, despite the risks; However, their blue-collar job and the public’s perception of the group made them easily targeted, alienated, and blamed for the spread.
Mental and Physical Effects of the Lockdowns and Restrictions on Drivers
The Lifeworks Mental Health Index, published monthly over the past year, has given great insights to the mental health of Canadians, and those in the transportation industry.
In individuals already experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, their symptoms were worsened. Throughout Canada, employees had a difficult time focusing on their work, certainly a concern for drivers who need to be focused on the road ahead of them.
Overall, a significant decline in psychological health was experienced by Canadians, including professional drivers, with mental health scores dropping
almost every month from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020.
Physically, we can expect there was an impact on the health of some drivers due to the lack of healthy food options. For those that enjoy working out at a gym, some may have seen their physical fitness (and mental health) suffer as a result if they weren’t able to transition to an at-home workout routine.
Because of the lack of washrooms and shower facilities in some areas, drivers had less means of looking after their personal hygiene, another area of physical health, which could also have worsened mental health concerns.
While there was a purpose to these restrictions, we can’t ignore the fact that allowing drivers access to healthy food, gyms, and washrooms (with sinks for
hand washing), could have led to better outcomes for their physical health, mental health, and potentially if they had come into contact with COVID-19.
Positive Aspects of the Pandemic
It wouldn’t be fair to look at all of the negative aspects of the lockdowns and restrictions without considering some of the small benefits we have experienced as a result.
For example, virtual healthcare has become far more common than before
2020, which is a benefit to drivers who often struggle to book appointments with their healthcare providers while on the road. Long term, this access to healthcare could greatly improve their health.
Since March 2020, we have seen many initiatives be put into place to support truck drivers, such as the Thank a Trucker program created by our team at NAL Insurance. Some members of the public set up stations to deliver meals to drivers at truck stops, while others provided them with gift cards as a thank you for the hard work and dedication to their careers.
Some companies chose to offer increased pay during the pandemic, helping to reduce the financial strain felt by many.
In the early months of 2021, when vaccine administration was shown to be quite slow in Canada, some border states were offering to vaccinate Canadian professional drivers.
The topic of mental health has also been brought to the forefront in the trucking industry, something that was rarely discussed before 2020, but is now a regular topic at events and conferences. For others, simply having a more relaxed leisure schedule meant having more time to focus on their health and family, providing a much-needed slow down to the busy lifestyle many people had adapted.
Moving forward into the coming months, it’s important to take what we have learned and use it for good.
For those of us who are not professional drivers, we have had a small taste of what it is like to live as one, isolated from loved ones and confined to a small space for long periods of time. It’s crucial that we don’t forget about them and the lifestyle they live as we begin to move back to a more “normal” routine, as they will still be living a difficult, isolating life and schedule.
Given that we are only a little over a year into this experience, we have yet to see true long-term data on the effects of COVID-19 and the lockdowns on driver physical and mental health. As we begin to learn more about these over the coming years and decades, we should commit to putting that information to good use by improving various areas of the industry in any way we can.
From an employer perspective, the Lifeworks Mental Health Index showed us that mental health scores are higher when employers offer mental health support. Providing managers with Mental Health First Aid training is a great start, to help them recognize when an employee may need more support.
Maintaining flexibility to drivers’ routines and schedules where possible is a good way to allow for a mental health “break” when their routine becomes burdensome.
Promoting available resources within the company – such as EAP programs, group benefit plans, and other available resources – will help them to understand how to access what they need when they need it. Quite often, these go unused simply because of lack of knowledge on how to access them.
Don’t be afraid to address the topic of mental health in communications, updates, and meetings. It’s something that affects everyone within your company and should never be ignored. Survey your employees and drivers to see what resources would benefit them the most and build a wellness program from there.
Don’t underestimate the power of one-to-one meetings and phone calls to check in with each one of your employees and drivers, especially if you rarely see them face-to-face. A simple conversation asking how they are, how work is, and what you can do to help them right now will go a long way in making them feel supported and appreciated.
It’s been a difficult time for so many, but the strength of the industry and our professional drivers has been apparent, and we look forward to many brighter days ahead.
Canadian Trucking Alliance. CTA: Stop Singling Out Truck Drivers as COVID Source. April 20, 2021. www.cantruck.ca/cta-stop-singling-out-truck-drivers-as-covid-source.
LifeWorks. Mental Health Index. www.lifeworks.com/en/mental-health-index.
Region of Peel. Profile of COVID-19 Cases. April 28, 2020. https://data.peelregion.ca/documents/RegionofPeel::profile-of-covid-19-cases/explore.
Wiley Online Library. Estimation of differential occupational risk of COVID-19 by comparing risk factors with case data by occupational group. November 18, 2020. www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ajim.23199.